Sometime tonight between the roses, the Champagne and the chocolates, couples across the U.S. and elsewhere will sit down to an intimate Valentine's Day dinner, stare soulfully into each other's eyes and perhaps take a moment to ponder a perennial question: Can this mad, mad love last?
Whether they're in the heady throes of their fifth date or their 20th year of marriage, the answer, according to a recent study published in the online journal Social Cognitive and Effective Neuroscience, lies more in the neural patterns of their brains than in the poetry of their heart-shaped valentines.
In the study, Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron at Stony Brook University in New York and two co-authors set out to investigate the age-old question that has baffled so many: Can the intense, heady head-over-heels romantic love experienced in the first flush of a relationship endure over time?
To attempt to find out, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of 10 women and seven men who claimed they were still "madly" in love with their spouse, even after an average of 21 years of marriage. Each viewed a picture of his or her beloved, and control pictures, including a close friend and lesser-known acquaintances. Brain activity was measured as participants looked at the facial images.
The researchers then compared these brain scans with those of people from an earlier experiment who said they'd fallen in love within the past year. They found the scans looked a lot alike.
"For some, when they look at their partner, it looks almost as if their brain is on fire," said Acevedo.
The VTA -- which is a crucial part of the brain's motivation and reward circuit -- also illuminates in response to food, money, alcohol and cocaine.
The dopamine-laden VTA had already shown activity in six previous studies of those in early-stage love -- in relationships ranging from three weeks to 17 months -- but the Stony Brook study was the first to ever associate the VTA with long-term love. Acevedo and Aron take this as evidence that romantic love can endure.
Brain Pattern Means Love
"A lot of times all we hear is our relationships are painful, and we suffer," said Acevedo. "But it's exciting to see there's a pattern in our brain that is associated with intense love," and that it appears in the long-in-love and the newly-in-love. "Love can last," said Acevedo." It doesn't wane. It doesn't disappear."
The researchers also believe their study offers clues as to what may be essential brain activity for couples to stay in love.
"It's a nice finding, because it shows in a way our brain is still a simple thing," said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at UCLA medical school who was not involved in the study. "Humans are so good at using sophisticated language to dissect emotions. But if we look at the way big systems in the brain respond, they seem to be much simpler than our behavior. The responses of the brain can be quite predictable."
So much for love's mysteries.
But couples can lasso this predictability to keep the fire hot. They can take up activities that drive up dopamine -- a neurotransmitter associated with novelty and working for reward -- in such critical brain regions as the VTA. Kicking up that brain activity, in turn, increases feelings of romantic love.
"Any kind of novelty, any activity that's new, exciting, challenging, possibly dangerous, will work," said Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and a co-author of the study. Ride through New York City in a pedicab after dark, go night sailing, go nude swimming, study a new kind of music, take a vacation, go out to the airport or simply open a map book and run your finger down a page and choose a country.
"It doesn't have to be that elaborate," said Fisher.
"Any kind of sexual stimulation is good," she said. "Don't wait to feel sexy. Just get into bed with your partner."
And, yes, the study's long-in-love marrieds said they had plenty of sex, or at least enough to set off a glow in the posterior hippocampus.
Fisher believes the study has implications for people in all stages of love, not just the long-in-love couples.
Online Dating and the BrainOnline daters should also take heed of what the study suggests about the workings of the brain's circuits, and become a little more patient, said Fisher
"Brain circuitry can be triggered at any time," said Fisher, who's the scientific adviser to Chemistry.com, a division of Match.com. "A lot of people head into courtship looking for fireworks. Don't pass up a chance by dumping someone after a first date because you don't feel the fireworks. The fireworks can happen at any time and be maintained."
Despite the similarities in brain activity of the long-in-love and the newly-in-love, the study found some telling, although not surprising differences.
"In that early-love stage, you're in that state of exhilaration," said Fisher. "You talk till dawn. You become obsessed with 'What does he think?' 'Does he like me?' 'Does he think I'm fat?'"
Susan Heitler, a Denver clinical psychologist and author of "The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong and Loving Marriage," explained further. "In a funny way, high, initial romantic love is associated with the almost negative feeling of anxiety, whereas you get the positive high without the anxiety with the long-term love."
The scans of the long-in-love also showed activity in brain regions associated with attachment, liking and bonding. "It's the same area of the brain that lights up when there's a positive attachment between a parent and a child," said Heitler. "That's not to say it's infantilizing. It's attachment connectedness and liking."
Again, no action there for the newly-in-love folks. "They're not high in liking, and they're not high in attachment," said Heitler, who was not involved in the Stony Brook study.
Let's see: It seems that long-in-love marrieds can have the same intense, romantically tingly, sexy relationship as the besotted newly-in-love -- but without the anxiety, obsessive frenzy and disconnectedness.
Another Valentine for the Long Marrieds
"You can have both, minus the mixed-bag feeling of intense wanting with an obsessive quality. That's the negative side of romance, which can kind of take over your life," said Heitler. Perhaps it's time for all the long-in-love to uncork another bottle of Champagne and toast themselves -- again -- on this Valentine's Day. They should at least break open the chocolates.